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Published Oct. 17, 2005

For the past 13 years the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., has led crusades against convenience stores that sell Playboy and Penthouse, against a "blasphemous" Hollywood film and, primarily, against corporate sponsors of TV programs that he believes promote promiscuity, violence, profanity or anti-Christian bigotry. Campaigns like these helped raise $5.2-million last year for his American Family Association, yet his influence in Congress was negligible and his fund-raising appeals mired in the single-issue predictability that can strangle an activist group.

Then the mail came.

In April 1989 a follower from Richmond sent Wildmon a newspaper clipping about an exhibit, partly financed by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), that included works by Andres Serrano, who created a now-infamous photograph showing a 13-inch plastic-and-wood crucifix submerged in the artist's urine. Serrano described it as a protest against the commercialization of sacred imagery. First Wildmon sent a letter and a reproduction of the photograph to every member of Congress. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-New York, responded by tearing up the Serrano exhibit catalog on the Senate floor and demanding, with 35 of his colleagues, that the NEA deny funds to "shocking, abhorrent" art.

Wildmon then put into motion his organization's mass-mailing juggernaut and over the next several months sent out more than 1-million anti-NEA letters.

"Don't let Congress give your hard-earned tax dollars to people who will produce hate-filled, bigoted, anti-Christian and obscene art," Wildmon pleaded in one letter. "The battle lines are drawn. . . . I'm counting on you!"

Before long, Wildmon was joined by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Rep. Dana T. Rohrabacher of California, the evangelist Pat Robertson and even Oliver North in an assault on the NEA unlike any other in its 25-year history.

Within weeks, a massive non-issue with most Americans _ Serrano's exhibit had already made a 10-city tour without incident _ had been fanned into a cultural bonfire for the religious right.

"I think Wildmon more than anyone else initiated the furor that enveloped the NEA," said Rep. Sidney R. Yates, D-Illinois, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Related Agencies.

Regarding NEA grants, he added: "There is a general perception now among House members that there has to be some kind of restrictive language, which, I think, reflects Wildmon's fears. I think it's unfortunate."

Suddenly the arts agency's budget reauthorization hearings in Washington were turned into theater as the actress Jessica Tandy, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the producer Joseph Papp and other artists celebrated the NEA and vilified its critics.

In subsequent months Wildmon found other NEA grants for controversial art, including one for $15,000 that helped the New York artist David A. Wojnarowicz (pronounced von-na-RO-vich) put together a retrospective, multimedia exhibit at Illinois State University, which combined, among other things, painting, photography and printed material, some containing homoerotic scenes.

In April this year Wildmon distributed to Congress, clergy and the media about 6,000 pamphlets showing 14 fragments from Wojnarowicz's work under the heading "Your Tax Dollars Helped Pay for These "Works of Art.' "

Taken from the museum exhibit catalogue, the fragments were shown out of context; for example, from a 6-by-8-foot collage-like painting titled Water, which contains at least 40 distinct images, Wildmon reproduced only the two showing homosexual lovemaking.

In his cover letter accompanying the pamphlet, Wildmon cautioned: "If you have trouble with explicit homosexual photographs I ask that you not open the letter but destroy it immediately. I warn you that you will be offended by the photos."

Among those most offended was Wojnarowicz, who said Wildmon's selective cropping had turned his art into a "banal pornography."

He sued Wildmon and his organization for, among other things, libel and copyright infringement, forcing the minister to come to New York on June 25 and sit in a federal courtroom right next to the homoerotic artwork he so despises.

Tall and thin, the 35-year-old Wojnarowicz describes himself as a high school dropout who fled a gun-crazy, abusive father (now dead) and lived his teen-age years as a suicidal prostitute on the streets of New York City. Last year he was diagnosed as having AIDS.

The 52-year-old Wildmon is a father of four who grew up in rural northeastern Mississippi, favors white short-sleeved shirts, has a graduate divinity degree from Emory University and relishes quiet weekends in Tupelo riding his lawn mower. Of his childhood, the former Boy Scout says it was a time of "wholesome fun, clean fun, FUN fun."

"People may call me an ignorant bumpkin," Wildmon has said. "I don't mind. The more they are mistaken, the better it is for me."

During his hourlong testimony in New York, one of Wildmon's four defense attorneys asked him on the stand whether he knew the difference between a collage and a portrait.

"No," replied Wildmon, sending chuckles through the artist colony in the audience.

"Do you know anything about art?" asked the attorney.

"Very little," said the preacher.

Outside the courtroom Wildmon was shooing away reporters. "It's nothing against you personally," he told me. "Why, if I had a dollar for every time Phil Donahue called, I'd be a rich man. At first I tried to be courteous _ that's the way I was raised _ but when reporters wrote their stories I couldn't recognize anything I said. I have nothing to gain from talking. It's a waste of time."

(Wildmon declined repeated requests for interviews for this story.)

Lately, Wildmon has required some reporters seeking interviews to sign a contract stating that they will be conducted only in question-and-answer format, that he will "review and correct the edited, prepublication copy" and that the interview cannot be published in "sexually oriented magazines" _ under penalty of a $500,000 fine.

Two months ago Judge William C. Conner of Federal District Court dismissed Wojnarowicz's defamation and copyright infringement claims and awarded the artist only $1 in damages, because, said Conner, Wojnarowicz had not proved financial damage.

But the judge issued an injunction against Wildmon's distribution of the anti-Wojnarowicz pamphlet, indicating he believed the minister had misrepresented the artist's work.

What makes Wildmon so singularly obsessed?

As Wildmon has told and retold the story over the years, during the Christmas holidays of 1976 he and his family were gathered around the television one night.

When they "got into a program and there was a scene of adultery," he told Manhattan inc. magazine, "we changed the channel; and we got into another program and somebody called somebody else an S.O.B., except they didn't use the initials; changed the channel again; got into a mystery program and then a scene came on, one man had another man tied down and was working him over with a hammer. Asked the children to turn the set off and decided that I would do something about it."

Wildmon, at that time a pastor of a Methodist church in Southhaven, Miss., asked his congregation to go without television for one week.

Within six months he had left the Southhaven church and started the National Federation for Decency, based in Tupelo. (In 1987 he changed the name to American Family Association.)

In spring 1978 Wildmon announced his first boycott of advertisers, telling Sears that his members would picket its stores in 36 cities until it withdrew its sponsorship of Three's Company, Charlie's Angels and All in the Family.

Sears denied it was responding to Wildmon's pressure, but nonetheless canceled its ads on two of the shows.

In late 1980 Wildmon met with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, then leader of the Moral Majority, and persuaded him to join forces.

Wildmon and Falwell called their new organization the Coalition for Better Television (CBTV) and enlisted the aid of Richard Viguerie, a well-known right-wing fund-raising strategist who had been instrumental in Ronald Reagan's election the year before.

With CBTV soon claiming a combined membership of 3-million, Wildmon said 4,000 members would spend three months monitoring TV content for "sex incidents per hour," scenes of violence and uses of profanity.

Perhaps the first major corporate figure to heed Wildmon was Owen B. Butler, the former chairman of Procter & Gamble. In June 1981, Butler announced that during the 1980-81 TV season Procter & Gamble had withdrawn advertising from 50 TV shows.

CBTV disbanded in less than a year and, without Falwell, Wildmon started Christian Leaders for Responsible Television (CLEAR-TV).

Wildmon spent the next nine years pursuing such corporate targets as Holiday Inn, for showing R-rated movies on cable; MCA-Universal, for releasing Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus is depicted as having sexual desire; Pepsi, for its connection with the Madonna video in which crosses are burned; Waldenbooks, for selling adult magazines; and Clorox and Mennen, for sponsoring shows that contained, respectively, violence and "anti-Christian bias."

Wildmon believes no group is more maligned and unfairly caricatured on television than Christians and suggests that such treatment would not be tolerated if the targets were members of religious or ethnic minorities.

The November 1987 issue of his American Family Association Journal offered examples from 23 prime-time TV shows in which ministers were depicted as lying, lecherous drunks, closed-minded prudes, adulterers, frauds and buffoons.

"I don't know the last time I saw a Christian portrayed as a normal, caring human being," Wildmon once wrote. "This anti-Christian programing is intentional and by design."

Wildmon says that because of his group's boycott, more than 50 Holiday Inns quit carrying late-night skinflicks such as Group Marriage, Chatterbox and Forever Emmanuelle.

He is widely credited with getting Southland Corp. to remove Playboy and Penthouse from 7-Eleven shelves.

But the effects of the boycotts are not always clear. Reportedly, occupancy at the picketed motels has often increased and picketed theaters have sold out their tickets thanks to publicity generated by Wildmon's campaigns.

The most persistent charge against Wildmon is that his boycotts are thinly veiled extortion. "His boycotts strike at speech," says Jeff Cohen, executive director of the media watch-dog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. "Wildmon is a censor from beginning to end."

Rep. Yates of Illinois finds the Wildmon campaign dishearteningly similar to the virulent attacks by conservatives on supposedly communist-inspired, taxpayer-financed art in America during the late 1940s.

"It's an exact parallel in my mind," says Yates, who suggests that Wildmon and the McCarthy-era art opponents used distortion to great effect in their campaigns.

NEA chairman John E. Frohnmayer, an elder in the Presbyterian church, in a barnstorming tour of talk shows and public speeches, has repeatedly pointed out that the grants Wildmon opposes represent only a handful of the 85,000 projects the agency has financed during its 25 years and a minuscule portion of its $171-million annual budget.

Wildmon has responded by redoubling his efforts to find controversial arts endowment grants.

"I don't think it'll go away anytime soon," Tim Wildmon _ the minister's son _ has said of the arts controversy. "You've got an element in the arts community that is just intentionally provocative."

- Bruce Selcraig is a journalist and former U.S. Senate investigator who lives in Austin, Texas. He wrote this story for the New York Times Magazine.